A new idea
A few weeks ago I was struck with a simple idea for a board game that very quickly developed into what I hope is a viable product.
I had been reading about map-colouring games after taking one of my periodical looks into game theory a subject that I find fascinating. I think this created some connections in my mind about tile-laying and space claiming games which I had not thought of before.
So the idea is relatively simple, each player has a collection of jigsaw pieces that they take turn placing until there is not a suitable place for them to lay them anymore. The last player to play a piece would be the winner. The tactile and physical nature of a jigsaw piece would mean that it would be clear which pieces can neighbour each other and which can’t. Also, they would be familiar in most players’ hands, and the connections would hold the pieces together.
When creating games like this I usually like to explore all possibilities that make sense within the system. A normal jigsaw piece has four sides that are each either positive or negative, i.e. sticking out or going into the main body. Avoiding repetition due to rotational symmetry this gives six types of pieces, two sets can be seen in this picture.
As the initial idea was for a two-player abstract game, I would require a game board that could fit 12 pieces in total. A 3×4 size seemed as good as any.
I created a quick prototype of the game using cardboard and a marker pen. The dots represent positive connections and the blanks negative connections. This is an example of a two player game with the paper prototype.
I played the game a few times by myself, I was interested to see how difficult it was to not play all the pieces in to the board. I then tested it with a colleague over lunch. My students were away (I often playtest with them) so I had to find some other ways to playtest the idea, if I didn’t want to wait weeks for them to return.
First paper playtests
I looked online and came across Playtest UK, a group that has open meet-ups across the UK for game designers to test their board and card games with other designers. It turned out there was a session the next day so I booked up straight away. (I later realised they had multiple playtests every week, so there’s nearly always one happening or about to happen).
Taking the original paper prototype I played a couple of games with the group. There seemed like there was potential but playing with cards with dots and blanks made it awkward.
Making it more real
I then started working in Adobe Illustrator to make jigsaw piece shapes ready to be laser cut. The most interesting thing for me to consider here is the shape of the piece. There is a risk when making a jigsaw piece that the surface area of the shapes vary considerably between pieces with all positive connections and those with negative connections. This is a basic example of a jigsaw piece, to me it doesn’t seem balanced.
To overcome this you can shift the form of the sides, where the jigsaw is negative you can push the form of the piece outwards. This helps create a better balance of surface area across shapes, as seen in this shape I created for my jigsaw pieces.
Through doing this process I realised that I could use the notion of jigsaw pieces to form the frame for the game, this way it is possible to change the size of the frame for the number of players.
I took this to the next Playtest session, and it went a lot better, the form was intuitive to play with and the rules simple to grasp. I was then invited to attend an open playtest session at Draughts a board gaming cafe in Hackney, London.
This session went really well. One group played multiple sessions with different player counts for over an hour, another played a few three player games. I played a few games with some of the other people showcasing their game, this time with four players and a different position player won each time (something I was concerned about and something that came back later).
Examples of two player and four player games.
A problem arises
I happened to be attending a colloquium in Athens, XXI Board Game Studies Colloquium 2018. This was my fifth time presenting at one of these events, and I often take new prototypes with me to play.
A few sessions in and something started to happen. The last player always seemed to win. It did not matter the number of players. The only way this seemed not to happen was if the final player made a glaringly bad play.
This was frustrating, I thought I’d cracked a game really quickly, but this appears not to be the case.
Despite this issue, the physical act of playing the game was pleasant. The pieces felt nice to hold, the colours work well together, placing the pieces felt nice and watching the board slowly fill all were enjoyable. The distinct problem being it didn’t work as a game.
Testing, adapting, testing, adapting
Continuing in the positive fortune of creating this game, straight after XXI BGSC I was heading to Berlin for A-Maze. A-Maze is a fantastic event, well worth attending. I started playing That Jigsaw Game with a friend discussing the problems I was having. A-Maze being a festival filled with games developers and designers, it wasn’t long before people started asking about the game and making suggestions on how to overcome the problem.
Things that were tried:
- You can’t lay next to your own colour.
- You have to create the largest area of your own colour pieces.
- Changing the frame to a square.
- Changing the number of negative and positive bits in the frame.
- Changing the order of play based on the current number of positive bumps of each colour currently on the board
- Using the frame pieces to block, in a completely freeform game.
Nothing seemed to work, the games were either too complex, still had an obvious dominant starting position, or just ended in draws all the time.
The issue with the original rule set is that the last player in the round will win nearly all the time. The solution seems like it could be in changing the order of play. However, this need has to be balanced with the original simplicity of the game, something that I want to keep.
The play order shouldn’t be random either, the players should have control of it. It’s a matter of striking the balance between being easily deterministic who will win and being a game were players have control.
The next step
I have one next adaptation I want to try.
Giving each piece a value between 1 and 3. This value will determine who plays next, the turn moves to player who is that value of spaces away from the current player.
Hopefully this may solve the problem, without being overly complex for players to implement, by adding one additional rule.